Charest defends N.L. drilling near Quebec
Last Updated: Thursday, October 7, 2010 | 9:32 AM NT
The Canadian Press
Quebec's premier found himself in a strange position in the legislature Wednesday: defending Newfoundland and Labrador against a verbal onslaught from his Opposition.
Jean Charest offered a simple explanation for the aggressive smackdown laid by the Parti Québécois against Canada's easternmost province during debate in the national assembly.
He said it was an obvious effort to break up the country.
"That's the PQ's agenda," Charest said. "It's to cultivate fights to help promote sovereignty.
"It's not to cultivate Quebec's economy."
The premier spent a good portion of Wednesday's question period being accused by the Opposition of letting Newfoundland "pillage" the province's resources and of meekly standing by while it happened.
At issue is Newfoundland and Labrador's exploratory drilling on its own side of the giant Old Harry oilfield in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. While that province already has an agreement with Ottawa on drilling rights, the PQ says Quebec is losing out.
The pro-independence party said this is Charest's fault because he can't stand up to his friends in the rest of Canada.
"We're letting Newfoundland pillage our resources, steal our oil," PQ Leader Pauline Marois said during one fiery exchange.
"I understand that, when you're a federalist [like Charest], you don't want to create any conflicts with Ottawa. But does it have to get to the point where we're losing the shirt off our backs?
"Can the premier stand up and be counted?"
Fuel on the fire
The PQ argues that Newfoundland and Labrador's exploratory drilling short-circuits a temporary moratorium imposed in Quebec, pending environmental-impact assessments there.
The sudden vehemence with which the Péquistes addressed the topic suggested they smelled a political opening.
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams has used inflammatory language against Quebec in recent speeches, accusing it of "highway robbery" in its dealings with Ottawa and other provinces.
The firebrand leader has listed a variety of long-standing grievances, ranging from federal subsidies for Quebec's aerospace industry to the bargain-basement rates Quebec pays for Newfoundland and Labrador's power under a deal reached in 1969.
The PQ enthusiastically splashed fuel over those interprovincial flames Wednesday.
One of its members argued that any extraction on the Newfoundland side amounted to a loss for Quebecers.
"There's no wall there," said Bernard Drainville.
"[The Charest government] doesn't seem to understand that if Newfoundland starts pumping on its side, they'll siphon off the resource on our side, too."
Charest in a squeeze
The debate offers the rest of the country a peek into one of the domestic political realities that has consistently plagued Charest.
The Liberal premier is habitually cast as a sellout by his opponents unless he takes a vehement stand in any dispute with other parts of Canada.
While taking steps to protect himself against those kinds of accusations, Charest has occasionally raised eyebrows outside the province.
Prominent examples include his public campaign against the Harper government's cuts to arts funding, and his denunciations of the Alberta oilsands at a UN climate-change conference.
Such efforts might have infuriated Charest's counterparts in Ottawa and Edmonton, but they likely conserved some of his political capital back home.
On Wednesday, the premier opted to push back against the attacks on Newfoundland and Labrador.
The reaction from Marois was cutting: "He's absolutely incapable of answering my questions and, above all, answering the people of Quebec who are very worried that this government doesn't defend us."
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